A little while back I mentioned the children’s reading challenge that’s been running in UK libraries over the summer. We signed up with good intentions pretty much as soon as the end of term bell faded. But getting my 7 year old boy G to engage with the ‘fun summer activity’ turned into something of a battleground. For him reading is an unbelievable chore, associated with the ghastliness of school; every other word is punctuated by a pained groan or a tangential question.
It’s clearly a common problem, particularly amongst boys. An incredibly depressing report out yesterday by the National Literacy Trust said that said one in five children would be embarrassed if a friend saw them reading a book.
I don’t think this is G’s problem. I’ve not picked up on anti book peer pressure in his school (it’s far too middle class). Certainly he loves the DS, but he’s equally attached to the atlas he pours over in bed every night – so much so that we had to buy another copy after the first one disintegrated.
But we soldiered on with the challenge and by the end of the hols scraped through with a bronze medal, which as Rebecca Adlington or Tom Daley would no doubt concur, isn’t anything to be sniffed at.
But it certainly didn’t get him reading for pleasure, so I decided to change tack. My secret weapon was a brand new release in a series of books from my own childhood. Ian Livingstone’s ‘Blood of the Zombies’ is the latest in the long running Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks in which ‘YOU are the hero’. I was quietly confident he’d be hooked. After all it combined G’s love of games, map making and the undead.
It’s 30 years since the very first title, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was released. I’d already been heavily into the American ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, so was hyped when I saw a feature about this new British series on the HTV kids show Freetime (yes, these are the details I remember in my life).
The next day I scraped together £1.50 and pegged it down the road on my fake Chopper to the Durdham Down Bookshop (one of Bristol’s few surviving bookshops). Minutes later I was home and settled into my bean bag with my gleaming copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, two dice, a pencil and my favourite chocolate smelling rubber (that’s an eraser US readers, don’t be alarmed!)
The book was essentially a much simplified version of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying games that Livingstone and co-author Steve Jackson had introduced to the UK in the 70s.
It cast the reader as an adventurer on a quest to discover treasure hidden deep within a mountain. Along the way you are besieged by a variety of traditional fantasy nasties like goblins, trolls and orcs, which you must battle using only a dice, pen and paper. There are also fiendish man traps to be overcome, like a mysterious room tiled with handprints and an underground ferry manned by a wily Wererat.
Revisiting the book three decades on, I think what I found so compelling was not the fighting or grisly death scenes, but the narrative opportunities it offered. There are a multitude of routes through the book, and many different endings. Judging by its fragile state I must have explored every dead end and spiked pit several times over.
These were the same narrative tricks that became a defining part of the computer games that emerged later in the decade. And it’s no coincidence that Ian Livingstone went on to play a key role in Eidos, the company that created the Tomb Raider series that owes so much to Fighting Fantasy.
The other thing that these books introduced me to were some great comic book artists. The artwork is fabulously evocative throughout the series, the illustrators chosen to match the genre. Appointment with F.E.A.R even featured a cover by the legendary Brian Bolland, and superb silver age comic book illustrations by Declan Considine.
But perhaps the highlight of the series was Deathtrap Dungeon with work by Iain McCraig who went on to provide the concept art for Star Wars’ Darth Maul along with credits for Harry Potter and The Spiderwick Chronicles.
We haven’t completed Blood of the Zombies yet, but we’re both enjoying it hugely. G revels in the grizzly details and the continual decision making. The new simplified combat system helps too, making the clashes with increasing hordes of the undead fast paced and really satisfying.
But the best thing of all is that we have found a book that G is happy to read for up to an hour without a single moan or groan. The questions still come thick and fast mind you, but they are now focussed on the story and not the time.
When I asked him earlier what he thought of the book G replied, ‘It’s not a book daddy, it’s a game.’ A comment which I think could go some way to encouraging other reluctant readers to give it a go. These books remove the feelings of boredom that so many children associate with books.
Now we’ve got over the horror of reading, I can’t wait to scare the bejesus out of him with my personal favourite in the series, House of Hell.
11 thoughts on “Blood of the Zombies and the Horror of Reading”
Glad I had girls – these books don’t look like my cup of tea!
Have you ever thought about trying to engage your son by getting him to design his own book?
They’re grisly but great fun – but yes not for everyone! That’s a great idea – he loves the world so I was thinking of doing something based around his favourite countries with him.
Love it! It seems mad that school reading lists focus on such a narrow range of genres and styles when trying to encourage kids to read. Clearly, the way to engage a child is to help them to find a book which interests them- and once ‘engaged’, they’ll get all the benefits which reading can bring, regardless of genre.
Sad thing is they seem to think he can’t really read because he won’t make any effort with the learn to read type books he’s sent home with. Will keep plugging away with the gruesome stuff at home!
Don’t think it matters what they read as long as they do read. Some of the schoopl stuff can be terribly dull – won’t they let him read his home books and just accept that? My 8 yr old boy is really into Mr Gum by Andy Stanton – they’re pretty bonkers books – have you come across them? Not as visual as those ones, but might be good to try.
We love Mr Gum. Going to see Andy Stanton at Bath Children’s Lit fest in a few weeks which we can’t wait for. Blog post to follow…
ooo we’re going to see him at Guildford 🙂
Brilliant story. Those are the books that helped make reading (and gaming) a lifelong passion for me. Hopefully this book has pushed your son in that direction too.
I remember that episode of Freetime. That was the moment I got into Fighting Fantasy, with Dungeons & Dragons, White Dwarf magazine and other RPGs quickly following. That chance viewing of a TV programme had a big influence on my life.
Part of the appeal of the books was their ‘Brit Art’ style : A dark, fairytale-esque version of a fantasy world, compared to the more wholesome ‘high fantasy’ look that Dungeons & Dragons American artists produced. Russ Nicholson’s wonderful illustrations, especially the absolutely terrifying Ghoul, still resonate to this day. John Blanche was another great artist – his work on Ian Livingston and Steve Jackson’s ‘Sorcery !’ series is classic.
I used to get all my stuff at Forever People on Park Street in Bristol. Great Times.
P.S. I stumbled across this blog by specifically googling “Freetime” and “Warlock of Firetop Mountain”, to see if I could track down a clip of the episode. Funny that your experience happened in Bristol too !
Glad that someone else gets my obscure kids TV references! Forever People was a fantastic shop , though I didn’t go there till I was quite a bit older – was reading Simon Pegg’s autobiography recently and found out he used to shop there at the same time as me.
I’d never thought about the artwork as being specifically British, but of course you’re right. Loved Sorcery, am going to revisit them when the new apps come out next year.
I think that reading Fighting Fantasy was a rite-of-passage during those times – 2000AD was another big influence during that era.
One of the great things about Forever People was it’s eclectic contents. Not only did they sell RPGs, comics, boardgames and Sci-Fi/Fantasy novels but also counter-culture stuff : back issues of Oz magazine, the card game ‘Grass’, a game about the Beat Generation and legal highs like ‘Lettuce Opium’. We may never see its like again.
Hope you enjoy the Sorcery app. Tablets and E-Books have given a new lease of life to gamebooks.